When last we saw comics writer Gary Friedrich, he was badly losing a law suit to gain control of the character Ghost Rider and Marvel was telling him to pay back $17,000 in royalties for unauthorized Ghost Rider merchandise he was selling at cons. It was a dark day for creators, and everyone chalked it up as yet another failed attempt at getting rights back, joining a long list such as the Kirby’s claim, Marv Wolfman’s Blade case, Joe Simon’s Captain America and so on and on and on.
But in a stunning development to those of us who watch these things, an appeals court has vacated the earlier ruling, and sent it back to the courts:
In 2011, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest agreed with the company, finding Friedrich had relinquished his rights to Ghost Rider.
On Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court deemed that Friedrich’s 1978 agreement with Marvel was ambiguous.
“First, the critical sentence defining the ‘Work’ covered by the Agreement is ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased,” Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in the 48-page opinion. “Second, the language is ambiguous as to whether it covered a work published six years earlier.”
The appeals court found that Marvel was not entitled to a judgment based on its argument that a statute of limitations has expired. The court also found that there is a genuine dispute of facts regarding the authorship of the character.
You can read the whole opinion right here:
The Hollywood Report has more analysis, but the appeals judges had considerable question about just what Marvel had agreed to in 1978:
Spotlight 5 had been published six years earlier by a different corporate entity (Magazine Mgmt.) and had grown so popular that Marvel had already reprinted it once and had launched a separate Ghost Rider comic book series. Given that context, it is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it. It is more likely that the Agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties’ intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider.
This is a potential blockbuster because, as is well known, Marvel kept crappy records during the 70s, and their standard work for hire agreement was am ambiguous check statement and not a full blown contract, as the judges noticed this time out. While observers have long noted that Friedrich’s claim to Ghost Rider isn’t even the clearest of the ownership cases—it was based on a earlier character and editor Roy Thomas also had a clear hand in his creation—the ruling must have still sent a battalion of Disney/Marvel lawyers into combat formation. You can bet your bottom dollar they are already preparing briefs based on everything I just wrote.
What will happen next? They can settle out of court or…proceed for a trial.
Our resident legal expert Jeff Trexler will hopefully be along shortly with more expert analysis, but for now this is stunning news.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.